Birth of a Bridge

One hundred pages into Birth of a Bridge, the prize-winning novel from French writer Maylis de Kerangal, the narrator describes how starting in November, birds come to nest in the wetlands of the fictional city of Coca, California, for three weeks. While this may seem insignificant in a novel about the construction of a $3-billion project contracted to an international consortium, it actually plays an important role in the novel (more on that later). The birds also serve as a metaphor for Coca itself: Unless you were born and raised there, you stay just long enough to get the job done and leave.

Maylis, with the help of translator Jessica Moore, makes this clear a little later in the novel:

Coca promises the high life. People come here from all over, bodies impatient, pockets holding just enough to get by for a few days; constant turnover of people and desires, burning cheeks and boiling pupils, fast streets like centrifugal motors and skyscrapers opening onto a sky that dispenses good fortune: the power of territory in action. Here you come into contact with everything that concrete and the violent scansion of hearts immersed in a common turbulence. Yet the secret of this incomparable flow that makes the blood pump harder in the arteries and sweat pearl in the small of the back, this secret is no secret to anyone, it circulates through all possible networks like breaking news: don’t come to Coca unless you’re ready to join the hustle! Don’t lay down roots here, and certainly don’t come for fun or for some rest. Approach it like an ambitious wild beast, breathe deeply and kick open the door, show up without waiting to be announced, without checking in, go ahead and put your plan into action.

The last line in the above quote can certainly apply to the earliest settlers, who made a lot of sacrifices in order to own a piece of this land, which consists of a plateau and a valley with a large, mysterious river running through it. If they survived the naturally harsh conditions or the wildlife that preyed on them, then they had to battle the natives. Ironically, the descendants of those settlers are now trying to protect their land (or somehow make money) from a new group of people who are showing up “without checking in” and “putting their plan into action”: those who work for Pontoverde, the consortium of French, American, and Indian companies that is charged with constructing the bridge.

Engineering this project is Georges Diderot, who acts as a “bridge” between the motley crew of workers and the executives. Not only does Diderot’s no-nonsense approach and experience with major construction projects all over the world qualify him for the job, but in a way, his lack of attachment does, too. “They describe him by turns as an engineer without a homeland, a mercenary of concrete, and a patient clearer of tropical forests . . . the laconic cowboy, from nowhere, bent on his without a single wasted gesture.”

Katherine Thoreau, one of Diderot’s subordinates, is in a different situation: She and her family are always moving, but they’re also distancing themselves from each other. By working on the bridge, she’s just trying to keep her family together. Ever since her husband, Lewis, became disabled during an accident at work, she’s been the sole breadwinner, struggling to pay the bills. As if she didn’t have enough to worry about, she also has to deal with her husband’s anger and his inability to properly help her with their very demanding children. Fortunately, she gets some respite from Diderot, who eventually becomes more than just her boss.

Katherine isn’t the only bridge worker with dysfunction in her life. One of the others includes Summer Diamantis, whose abandonment issues cause her to be an overzealous concrete manager. Then there’s Mo Yen, who went through great lengths to flee the Chinese mining town where he grew up. Finally, Soren Cry was in a relationship that ended badly, and now finds himself mixed up with some locals who want him to atone for past sins by bringing an end to the whole project.

These locals are not the only ones who want to sabotage the construction or even cause harm to those who work on it. Early on, Diderot is confronted by Jacob, who, despite being known as “the professor” among some of the locals, uses violence to try to get his point across. Opposition also comes from a group of ornithologists, who successfully shut down the site for three weeks so birds will be allowed to nest in the nearby wetlands. Being three weeks behind is bad enough, but Diderot also has to deal with workers who want to be paid in case the site shuts down for good.

The action in this novel (de Kerangal’s first to be translated into English) is fast-paced with long sentences that sparkle and flow like that under the sun; just as the characters in the story occasionally mingle, so do references to nature, artifice, and culture. For example, the narrator follows Diderot on a bike ride: “Bike along slowly, first rolling alongside the river, then for two miles follow the black paved path that weaves back and forth beside the frozen river, solid and intense as Chinese ink against the uncertain murk of the static waters, pass the juvenile financial district, effulgent, bristling with cranes that are too red . . .” In such passages, the reader never feels bogged down because of the passion and intelligence she displays in her subject, as well as her inventive use of language. In addition, Moore’s translation manages the impressive balancing act of maintaining the originality of Kerangal’s French prose while making it accessible for non-French readers. Overall, unlike the characters that constantly move from place to place, Birth of a Bridge will stay with readers long after they finish it.

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